Las Vegas Sun

January 18, 2018

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Where I Stand: DOE’s nuclear fairy tale hasn’t changed in the past 45 years

YOU can change the name but you just can't get rid of the smell.

Back in the days when nuclear power meant exploding bombs and mushroom-clouded desert landscapes just a few miles from Las Vegas, the Atomic Energy Commission was the name of the agency charged with protecting and testing our nuclear capability.

The whole world now knows that our government, in its determination to test the devastating power of our nuclear arsenal, lied to the citizens of the United States about the health and safety risks created by the explosions, which could be seen from the top of Mount Charleston on a clear day and felt in downtown Las Vegas on any day.

We also know that the good scientists and bureaucrats who worked for the AEC, in an effort to spare those of us who lived downwind in Las Vegas from the death-causing effects of the fallout, waited until the winds blew toward Utah before pulling the trigger. Lucky us. Unlucky downwinders.

Let's fast forward to 1996. The AEC has had a name change. The Department of Energy, as it is now called, is still in the business of not telling the truth. And, now, even though atomic is no longer in the name, things nuclear are still the province and the business of the DOE.

And just like before, Nevadans are being asked -- no, told -- to pay the heaviest price for their citizenship. This time, the issue is not about exploding atomic bombs that the government knew would kill us but, rather, about burying the radioactive wastes of the nuclear power industry in our back yard. An activity that neither the government nor any of its contractors can guarantee will not be harmful to Nevada.

What we didn't know in the 1950s about radioactive fallout, we have been learning in the 1990s about radioactive waste. One of the most troubling aspects of the nuke waste is that it is dangerous to humans and every other living thing on this planet for some 10,000 years. That's a long time.

So when Congress decided in 1982 to find a suitable place to bury the country's radioactive problem, it set forth very specific criteria that had to be met in order to qualify a site as dump-safe. Now, some 14 years and a few billion dollars later, the Department of Energy is no closer to and, probably, much farther away from finding a burial site.

Oh, yes, along the way the Congress decided that finding a scientifically based burial ground for nuke garbage was no longer a necessity and directed the DOE to study only Yucca Mountain in Nevada. For those who are too young or too naive, that means the choice was narrowed to one, which means "let's not waste money on science when a dose of good old politics will do the trick."

Well, Nevadans, in our desire to protect our way of life and the future for our children, did not roll over and play dead. Even though a few shortsighted unions and near-sighted contractors wanted to sell out to the nuclear power industry -- those are the fat cat power producers who are pulling the strings in Congress and the DOE -- Nevada's mothers and fathers said "no way."

The result has been a steadfast belief that science and not politics should determine the answer to the nation's nuke waste problem. Make that the science of the next century rather than the last. And our resolve has been an expensive thorn in the side of the DOE and the backside of the power companies who want only to find a cheap and efficient place to send their troubles.

Now, because the DOE cannot guarantee the safety and stability of Yucca Mountain, the federal agency wants to change the rules of the game by rewriting the criteria which should determine whether or not Yucca Mountain is safe. In short, the DOE knows it is moving down the wrong track and that Congress will not let it change course this late in the game. The only way, therefore, to pass the rigid standards set up by Congress in the first place is to change the standards.

When, as kids, we tried to change the rules in the middle of the game we were called cheaters and worse. What should we call the Department of Energy and its friends in the nuclear power industry who are trying to do the same thing?

What the DOE wants to do to Nevada stinks. And what the Congress is threatening to do next year -- force the dump site down our throats without any pretense of good science -- smells to high heaven.

AEC or DOE. By any other name, there's still a stench.